Some folks might be surprised at the results of a recent poll of steelhead anglers commissioned by Trout Unlimited.
The survey of more than 600 anglers from Oregon, Washington, and California found a strong majority of anglers in favor of both protecting wild steelhead runs and a balanced management approach, with some rivers managed for hatchery fish and harvest.
But I, for one, was not surprised. My work involves talking to fishermen about topics such as how they feel about conservation. So I have heard these opinions from all kinds of anglers, on the banks of rivers, in meeting rooms, and in bars, for years.
I would even say the survey results are a reflection of my own life experience.
I come from a family of sportsmen and women who hunt and fish both for food and recreation. But I’m relatively new to steelhead fishing, having only chased these anadromous trout for six years now.
Steelheading is a little like big game hunting. For me, a big part of hunting is seeking out those places that are truly wild, those blank spots on a map that denote roadless areas or that obscure river system miles from any development.
It’s in places like that where the sense of discovery is heightened, where your skills really get tested.
But I am also driven by the desire to succeed. Part of the hunting equation is learning everything you need to know about a species to be successful. Elk bed down on high wooded north-facing slopes during the day, mule deer bucks like the high country and their routine—and steelhead like to rest but are sensitive to water temperatures and streamflows and may move at any time.
It can take a long time in the field to learn these kinds of things. Each broken off fish, and every fish brought to hand, is a new experience, a way to learn more. Eventually we learn enough to be successful more often than not.
I struggled with the long learning curve when I first started steelheading. I am a lifelong fly fisherman, but catching a steelhead, especially a wild steelhead, on the fly is a serious challenge.
So I sometimes walked away from those more wild rivers with few anglers, and headed to rivers planted with hatchery fish and popular with fishermen. Often I did so with a spin rod, bobber and jig.
Success came more quickly when I did this. I began to learn where fish were holding and how to approach them. That helped me become more successful in other rivers and with other gear.
It’s very satisfying to catch any steelhead, wild or hatchery. But the greatest challenge, in my experience, is catching wild fish in rivers without much human influence.
The TU survey tells me, among other things, that I’m pretty average as a steelheader. I want intact, fishable habitat that produces strong numbers of wild steelhead. I also enjoy fishing for hatchery fish, and harvesting them, in rivers that are not as “out there.” I fish with different tackle depending on conditions.
I like the slide of my boat into the water, tired arms from rowing, cold beer in a bar in a coastal town, seeing osprey, ouzel, egret and heron. I like watching fall Chinook run and figuring out which rivers will come into shape for steelhead after it rains.
So do a majority of other steelhead anglers, as it turns out.